Review: Dialectics and systems theory

Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin; 'Biology under the influence', New York 2013, pp400, £17.95

In this review I discuss one particular chapter of the book, entitled ‘Dialectics and systems theory’. Though prolific writers, these two famous research biologists and evolutionists, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, are mostly known for their classic, The dialectical biologist, a gem more relevant today than when written in 1985. The chapter I am investigating here was written by Levins.

When Hegel, Marx or Engels wrote of ‘things’, they were commenting on the dynamics of everything: all things (matter-energy) are born or emerge (from other things); they live or exist, then decay and die. These things are all that exist - everything is in permanent flux and “all that is solid melts into air” (Communist manifesto).

The general dynamics of this birth, life and death into chaos before a new emergence of things, with their new patterns, processes, tendencies and rhythms; their specific cluster of contradictions, their form and content; their appearance and essence; their quantitative change and qualitative transformation processes; their emergence from other things - all these general ‘laws’, and more, of nature’s development are the content behind the method of dialectics.

Dialectics these days can be deeply grasped much easier when all ‘things’ are defined and grasped as ‘systems’. Biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy began lecturing and writing articles on general systems theory in 1937, but the idea only took off in the 1950s and then even more so in 1968, when Bertalanffy published his defining book, General systems theory: foundations, development, applications.

However, I agree with Levins that long before all this Marx was the first practical systems theorist with his work on the whole capitalist system. Capital is still the best example to date in applying systems theory, but Marx never called it that. Bertell Ollman’s Dance of the dialectic explains in detail the systems character of Capital - yet even he did not quite call it that either.

Before we go on I should briefly define reductionism, which today still dominates bourgeois science, especially economic, social and political sciences. Reductionism tears up any dynamic whole by reducing it and looking at its parts as static and unrelated, rather than dialectically seeing the interconnectedness of the parts; the unity, struggle, interpenetration and transformational nature of opposites in the whole; or seeing the whole as much greater than the sum of its parts etc.

Since the 1950s and out of systems theory there has been a family of non-linear and non-reductionist theories: chaos theory, complexity theory, living systems theory, complex adaptive systems, dynamic systems, action theory; and flexible ideas such as emergence, bifurcation, fractals, feedback, butterfly effect, edge-of-chaos, the re-emergence of self-organisation; etc. Try Wikipedia or search for any of them. They come from scientists trying to combat today’s narrow and linear, reductionist and mechanical, Newtonian and Cartesian domination of science. In more limited ways they combat the idealist dream of a ‘final system’.

However, systems scientists are disarmed, a clock with no spring. You see, they do not embrace the dialectic and so they endlessly wander deserts circling in confusion. However, based on the latest scientific discoveries and concepts, they have many aspects or partial insights that are invaluable to developing the dialectic some of us love so much: a modern dialectics.

Bertalanffy and his co-workers in western academic institutions (and their modern counterparts) never adopted the dialectical method. They were so eager to avoid naming this politically charged dynamite, as their funding and careers would be slashed. Very few of the many systems scientists dare mention dialectics. Science is partisan, political and contradictory in this profit-driven, commodity world.

It is ironic that, despite exponential scientific development since Marx, the dialectics of all change, transformation and development has not itself been developed in any meaningful way: in fact, it is much worse than ironic.

Biology under the influence

The opening words of this book are:

Biology under the influence is a collection of our essays built around the general theme of the dual nature of science. On the one hand, science is the generic development of human knowledge over the millennia, but, on the other, it is the increasingly commodified specific product of a capitalist knowledge industry. The result is a peculiarly uneven development ...

Levins writes on p101 in the chapter, ‘Dialectics and systems theory’:

Mary Boger, a leader of the New York Marxist school, has been urging me for years not to allow dialectics to be subsumed under systems theory. Despite systems theory’s concerns with complexity, interconnection and process, she has argued that it is still fundamentally reductionist and static, and despite the power of its mathematical apparatus it does not deal at all with the richness of dialectical contingency, contradiction or historicity.

This process of serious dialecticians being over-infected by systems theories is ongoing but it has not happened to Levins: he is clear that for any system to be grasped we begin with the dialectic. On p102 he writes:

In what follows I will discuss several general themes that unite and differentiate dialectics and systems theory: wholeness and interconnection; selection of variables of parts; purposefulness, and the outcomes of processes ... the relation of continuity and discontinuity in process is an aspect of dialectics that system theory does not deal with at all.

On p115 Levins talks of the British evolutionary biologist, geneticist and former Stalinist, John Maynard Smith, whose position is that nowadays “systems theory replaces dialectics”. And on p101 he quotes Smith:

... [for Smith] systems theory makes dialectics obsolete. Engels’ awkward ‘interchange of cause and effect’ can be replaced by feedback - the mysterious ‘transformation of quantity into quality’ is now the familiar phase-transition or threshold effect. He [Smith] noted that “even in my most convinced Marxist phase, I could never make much sense of the negation of the negation or the interpenetration of opposites”.

In 2011, I wrote to the life-long fighter against reductionism and determinist genetics, the dialectical neuroscientist, professor Steven Rose, with an argument for advancing the dialectic by embracing and synthesising aspects of the systems approach. He was ill at the time, but his written reply was: “I should warn you that I am now a great enthusiast these days for the general systems theory.” His exact stand on the dialectic nowadays I know not of - but this shows again that in general it is a serious struggle. On p102 Levins states:

... systems theory and dialectics are not mutually exclusive. Some systems theorists are also Marxists or have been influenced by Marxism in their research contributions to the development of the theory. Other Marxists have had at least a passing contact with systems theory and have used some of its notions in their Marxist research.

Levins’ concluding words on p124 state that systems theory is “a groping toward a more dialectical understanding that is held back by its philosophical biases and the institutional and economic contexts of its development”.

I agree. Personally, I am all for systematically integrating or synthesising only aspects of systems theories into a rejuvenated new dialectic, a modern and clearer grasping of the deeper dynamics of nature, including us - but that is the music of the future.


On p104 Levins states: “Systems theory has a dual origin, in engineering and in the philosophical criticism of reductionism. On the one hand, it comes out of engineering as cybernetics, the study of self-regulating mechanisms with often rather complex circuitry ... it is the mathematics of feedback, the study of mathematical models”.

But it is the criticism of reductionism that concerns us most. Ecologists Meadows, Meadows and Randers wrote Beyond the limits in 1992. Levins quotes from them on p105 as defining a system as “an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised around some purpose. A system is more than the sum of its parts. It can exhibit dynamic, adaptive, goal-seeking, self preserving and evolutionary behaviour.”

This is beginning to sound dialectical. But beyond environmentalism, systems theory owes most to biologists, ecologists or living systems theory, where it really matured. And it is not surprising, as cell theory developed and as scientists understood the repeated patterns, processes, tendencies and rhythms at all nesting levels and sizes of organic and biological complexity, development and evolution in plants and animals. Indeed, out of cell-theory development, Marx opened Capital by defining the “simple commodity” as the “unit”, the “cell” of capitalism, a dialectical cell that has never been acknowledged by any Marxists as a fundamental dialectical category - one I think invaluable to revolutionaries today.

Other sources of systems theories are the human sciences, the sociologies, group dynamics, social systems, etc. All suffer the same problems as other general systems theories, as they do not grasp the dialectic.

Related - though not mentioned by Levins, but with much more potential - is the work of Lev Vygotsky and his modern-day followers. Vygotsky, a Marxist dialectician from Belorussia, developed both a ‘cultural-historical developmental’ approach and the ‘zone of proximal development’ in teaching children, from which came ‘activity theory’. I consider this work intimately linked to us finally discovering how human activity and our learning processes actually work in a holistic fashion, and that learning can only be grasped when we consider ‘concepts’ as cell-like nesting systems that develop dialectically, as with organic nature - a pointer to more music of the future.

Wholes, parts and holism

Levins dialectically discusses the development of wholes and parts (and ‘variables’) of systems in depth, drawing on his rich evolutionary biological knowledge with numerous examples, but it also applies to non-genetic forms of development too: ie, inorganic and human evolution.

Whilst the reductionists focused on the parts, at the other side of the spectrum pure holists looked only at the wholes, and not the dynamic interaction between the two. Today such holists would be spiritualists, Buddhists, mystics, and many other humanists who normally seek individual harmony with people, nature and the universe, ignoring the reality of class struggle, or that order and chaos are an all pervading truth of nature and all systems, and of this hierarchical capitalist system in particular.

Levins on pp107-08, though critical of holism, was clear that he treats it very differently from reductionism: “Dialecticians value the holistic criticism of reductionism ... dialectics appreciates the pre-reductionist kind of holism, but not its static quality, its hierarchical structure with a place for everything and everything in its place, nor the a priori imposition of a purposefulness that may or may not be there.”

Indeed, Levins explains in detail the holistic opposition to reductionism in biology, psychology, ecology, anthropology and so on. He superbly summarises the conflict between reductionism and holism: that in a dialectical approach, “Our spectrum is not a gradient from black through all the greys to white, but is a fractal rainbow” (p108). I would like to enhance that image by saying that this fractal rainbow reflects the dynamics of quantum activity; is ever-changing, always transformational, multi-dimensional and ecstatic in dancing to the rhythms of nature’s stretchy, twisty and flexible laws. Levins would agree.

There is a dilemma I have to resolve myself, and it seems Levins does too. ‘Variables’ can be ‘parts’ of a system, or parts of one system affecting parts or the whole of a different system. Levin describes how unusual temperature or low or high pressure, rainfall or drought from weather systems may affect the growth or decay of a specific predator-prey system. Further, the predator and prey are systems too, in their own right, and in nesting systems theory we can even go down through to their organs, cells and atoms as systems. We are obviously talking of complex adaptive systems here. The question I have is: Are all nature’s variables and parts systems in themselves?

On p110, Levins states: “Parts of a system may themselves be systems with their own structure and dynamics.” However, on p120 we have: “... all variables are themselves ‘systems’ with internal heterogeneity and structure, with an internal dynamics that is influenced by events on the system scale and also change the behaviour of the variables”.

All parts are variables and vice-versa. But are they all systems too? My current leanings are that they are all systems. The difficulty actually lies in our current inability to spot the boundaries of interacting nesting systems, their parts, and to grasp their cluster of contradictions and the primary one, etc. Every system has its environment of other systems always affecting each other. Further collective exploration on this is much needed.

The commodity as dialectical cell

I have already mentioned how Marx’s Capital was the first and still the best ever application of systems theory. Levins on p110 states:

Marx’s Capital was the first attempt to treat a whole system rather than merely criticise the failings of reductionism. His initial objects of investigation in volume 1, commodities, are not autonomous building blocks or atoms of economic life that are then inserted into capitalism, but rather they are “cells” of capitalism chosen for study precisely because they reveal the workings of the whole. They can be separated for inspection only as aspects of the whole that called them forth. To Marx, this was an advantage, because the whole is reflected in the workings of all the parts.

This Levins quote is important, as he is pointing to a category of dialectics that not even Engels highlighted: that of the crucial role the ‘dialectical cell’ plays in all nature’s dynamics - a category of revolutionary importance that a new dialectics of today must develop and explain clearly, especially with newer discoveries like stem cells. I could wax lyrical on why Marx suddenly stopped writing the preparatory Grundrisse notebooks mid-sentence in early 1858, whilst writing about commodities, and in his ‘eureka moment’, out of the blue, he now knew how to begin Das Kapital with the commodity-cell from which all of the system and Capital actually unfolds - but I will resist the temptation here. During the previous year he and Engels had been excitedly discussing the new developments in cell theory. Marx’s dialectics was always incorporating and developing living scientific progress - a long-lost tradition that needs to be restarted.

Levins’ chapter on dialectics and systems theory is not itself a breakthrough for a modern dialectics, but it is a very useful stepping stone for revolutionaries to use. Get the book (it has other interesting articles too) or search for the article (though the formats I found online are not easy reading). There are other key areas of the development of dialectics. For example, many Marxists have tried in vain to include ‘practice’ into dialectics. However, Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao and others all repeatedly state dialectics is about logic, knowledge, epistemology, thought, etc. For Marx dialectics was about grasping material reality in the head - this coming from the man who wrote his undeveloped ‘11 theses’ on revolutionary practice. This may be more important and controversial than including aspects of systems theory into a new dialectics.

I would like to see further discussion in the pages of the Weekly Worker. Or get in touch with me - maybe a global internet study group on the development of dialectics could be set up.

Steve Masterson